Derek Jeter was honored in the Bronx on Sunday night for his 20 years of excellence with the New York Yankees. His No. 2 was retired and his plaque will sit among the all-time greats in Monument Park. There’s something poetic about the former shortstop being feted by forming his likeness on a plaque where his expression will never change.
For all his accomplishments on the field, Jeter maintained the same stoic and unmoving personality throughout his two decades of play — even as he transformed into one of the most famous athletes in the world. He was in many ways a blank slate, an underwhelming personality dipped in vanilla.
This plain facade allowed a blank canvas for devoted fans and disgusted detractors to paint with their own biases. Nearly three years after hanging up his cleats, he’s still a controversial piece of art.
One needn’t look too hard for over-the-top praise or excessive slander on social media as the Jeter ceremony played out. And although one would expect nothing less, it’s worth asking what all the fierce debate was about, considering the actual circumstances.
More importantly, it must be pointed out that the answer to the great Jeter debate –as with many issues — is somewhere in the middle.
He was an exceptional player worthy of the Hall of Fame. His exploits have also been wildly exaggerated and his ability overstated. Both things can be — and are — true.
Jeter, a 14-time All Star was a .310 career hitter and captured five Gold Gloves. He hit 260 home runs and stole 368 bases while serving as a valuable table-setter for some great teams. He’d be Cooperstown-bound if he’d played for the Milwaukee Brewers.
At the same time, his legend would be much smaller. Part of what made Jeter special was his lot in life. He hit the lottery by securing the most glamorous position on the most important franchise in sports during a period of great success. He would not be DEREK JETER without the five World Series titles. But it’s not as if he didn’t play a significant role in bringing those five titles to the franchise.
Jeter played a season’s worth of postseason games (158) and shined in the big moments. He hit .308 in the playoffs and smacked 20 home runs while — either by pure luck or pure magic — finding himself in some of the more memorable plays of the age.
He is not the greatest shortstop of all-time. He may not even have been as good in his prime as his contemporaries Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. But those players weren’t Captain of the Yankees. It’s easier to see those players without the mysticism.
It’s true that Jeter was made into more than he actually was. It’s true he had obvious deficiencies (range and extra-base power). It’s also true that he was the heart and soul of the Yankees and an international icon whether he deserved it or not.
That’s what was being celebrated Sunday night. He was not being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was being recognized for his contributions to his team and given the highest honor they could give.
Not a single person could honestly argue that he didn’t deserve it. Jeter earned the plaque. He earned the highest honor the Yankees could give. There’s no reasonable argument suggesting he didn’t — even if he’s been the recipient of some revisionist and friendly history.
The anti-Jeter camp should have saved their bullets for his inevitable first-ballot induction into baseball’s most hallowed hall. Naturally, it will fall on deaf ears then as well.